Once A Priest Always A Priest (Or: My Wife Will Pray for You)


Image: John Gumbley (center) with some of his supporters (Source: Sydney Morning Herald)

Perhaps one of the greatest hypocrites of all time appeared before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse this week. He is Philip Gerber, the “professional standards” official for Phillip Aspinall’s Anglican Church (known elsewhere as the Episcopalian Church or the Church of England) for many years. He was a sort of moral guardian of church officials and employees.

Gerber was in the job from 2000 to 2009. He would know more than most people just what was required of him by the law concerning reporting of child sexual abuse, since he is a lawyer as well as an Anglican priest.

He told the Royal Commission hearing into the North Coast Children’s Home that he had made “some mistakes” handling abusive priests. Mr Gerber admitted his “failings” and said he was not trying to defend himself. “I am very unhappy with myself, I didn’t take the sort of steps that you are talking about… and am quite embarrassed and apologize that it might have potentially put other people at risk, children and other vulnerable people at risk.”

In particular, Gerber did not report Rev. Brown to police for at least a year after receiving a detailed complaint from Brown’s victim at the Children’s Home, “Tommy” Campion (see previous posting) in 2005. Mr. Gerber agreed he had a duty to go to police with abuse allegations but couldn’t say why he didn’t .Gerber’s excuse was that Brown was a “not uncommon name”, and the victim had not provided a first name, so he did not bother to look at the diocese records about him. Brown continued to hold a license to practice until June of this year.

Justice may be blind, but the church’s watchman, Gerber, was deaf, mute and blind, at least when it came to paedophiles. Other offenders did not escape his attention. Despite admitting in an earlier interview that his unit in the Anglican Church was a euphemism for paedophile investigations, the “rat catcher’s unit”, he paid much more attention to other issues.

In 2004, he introduced a requirement for priests to fill out a form with several personal questions on it. These included questions about extra-marital sex, involvement in the occult, and cruelty to animals, traffic convictions, and attitudes to alcohol. It also covered internet chat room activity, gambling activity, homosexuality, and access to pornography.

Despite his claims to the present enquiry that he hadn’t known much of the problem with paedophile priests in the past, Gerber, in the 2004 protocols for priests, claimed that a police check of prospective priests is common practice, even in states where the law does not make it obligatory, especially if they will be working with children. This has been proven to be untrue, in practice, as he failed, only a year later, to report Brown, and did not prevent Kitchingman’s ordination as a priest.

The moral guardian of the Anglican Church was not content to watch over wayward priests; he extended his attentions the following year to Sunday school teachers, youth leaders and church wardens. Such people who were found to be “guilty of moral lapses” would be dismissed, and added to the same list as that for paedophiles. The moral lapse offences included “unchastity”, drunkenness, scandalous conduct, the willful neglect of duties, the failure to pay debts and any crime that carried a jail term of more than 12 months. However, teachers at Anglican schools were not covered by the new disciplinary measures, unless their school boards decided otherwise. Perhaps the teachers’ union might have had something to say about Mr. Gerber’s ideas on chastity.

By 2007, Gerber’s moral crusade was in full flight. He extended the offences for being placed on the sex offenders list, for clergy and church workers, to adultery. At the time, he said that “We don’t want to go snooping around in people’s bedrooms. On the other hand, both the people in the church, and presumably the community, expect ministers will be faithful to their spouses. It’s a higher expectation, perhaps, than you have of an ordinary member of the community, and so we expect our ministers to be above reproach in that area.”

This was his excuse for sacking, against the wishes of the priests flock, an unmarried priest, John Gumbley (pictured above), who had accessed an on-line dating service to find a potential wife. The church relied on a clause which stipulates ministers should maintain ”chastity in singleness.”  As Mr. Gerber opined at the time, “In politics or in business, high standards of behaviour were expected by the church of its senior officers.”

The area of sexually abusing children did not attract Mr. Gerber’s puritanical attention quite so much. None of the three alleged abusive clergymen at the Children’s Home -Brown, Kitchingman and Morgan- were placed on Mr. Gerber’s black-list of unworthy priests, even after convictions in the courts.

Brown is on the Diocese of Bathurst’s 2013 staff list. In a letter in June this year to the Bishop of Bathurst, which opened with ‘‘Greetings from Newcastle!’’ Brown asked that his authority to officiate as a priest be removed because he was retired. ‘‘My wife and I are part of the cathedral community and enjoy being together ‘in the pews’ each Sunday and participating in the activities of the cathedral parish,’’ Brown wrote.

Besides the Rev Brown mentioned above, there were a few other clergymen who got past Gerber’s guard, possibly because they were not adulterers, gamblers or in the habit of running red lights. The subject of this hearing, Allan Kitchingman (see previous posting) was one of them. Kitchingman continued to worship at the Newcastle cathedral after his most recent conviction, in 2002, and release from jail in 2004. The dean of the cathedral had provided Kitchingman with a personal reference. Kitchingman remained on the diocese’s clergy list while in jail, and until 2007, and allowed to use the honorific of “reverend”.

Gerber tried to explain his inaction on Kitchingman by saying he did not raise the alarm about Kitchingman attending church where altar boys were present, or take actions to have his title removed, because he considered Kitchingman was “a person who had been dealt with,” that is, convicted and imprisoned. When counsel assisting, Simeon Beckett, put the question to Gerber that “You didn’t consider that there was a particular danger to that in terms of both the reputation of the Anglican Church but also in terms of those people who would come in contact with him?” Mr Gerber agreed and stated that “I am appalled at my actions.”

Indeed, everyone, at the hearing, was appalled at Mr. Gerber’s actions.

When Mr. Gerber found he had a real rats’ nest of paedophiles congregating around the Newcastle cathedral, he apparently backed off under the belief that the Dean of the cathedral, Graeme Lawrence, “was a very powerful man, and he protected people who were in his cathedral . . . he was quite a powerful person who exercised influence over people, even bishops.” Poor Mr. Gerber was only a lowly rat-catcher.

During Lawrence’s time as Dean, Newcastle Anglican Cathedral became ‘‘a place where people who had less than savoury pasts were congregating. There was a lot of sort of low-level information that made me very uneasy about who and what was going on at the cathedral,’’ Mr Gerber informed the enquiry. While he was aware of a number of people “who had some sort of history of misconduct or abuse that were collecting around Newcastle Cathedral,” he did not raise his concerns because he “didn’t have anything concrete,” only court convictions.

He also took no action about the above-mentioned Dean of Newcastle, Graham Lawrence, (who has since been defrocked, last year), regarding allegations of sexual assault against a teenage boy. It was no surprise to Mr Gerber that sex offender priest Allan Kitchingman worshipped at the cathedral after he was released from jail in 2004. Gerber had been “surprised” when Lawrence had joined the church’s working group on sexual abuse. He resigned after one meeting.

The Dean, Lawrence, was one of three priests, including Graeme Sturt, sacked for participating in a group sex session with a boy in 1984. Lawrence appealed to the Supreme Court, but lost. Giving judgment, Judge Sackar (note: Not judge Sacker), noted that the priests “unseemly” behaviour “no doubt had a potentially adverse impact on their reputations,” and that there was ‘‘no doubt that these events have arguably impacted upon the reputation of the Anglican Church of Australia’’.

In a blow to Mr. Gerber’s anti-gay clergy stance, the judge also said that ‘‘Although the issues involve allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of the priests and other males, this case is not, nor could it be, about the church and the whole issue of homosexuality, whether concerning its clergy or its parishioners. That issue, which it must be acknowledged is likely to produce strong views either way, is far removed from the purview of these proceedings.’’

What the judge thought at the time was that the boy was over the age of consent. It has since been revealed that the offences had begun when, allegedly, the boy was much younger. Mr. Gerber could not see beyond the issue of homosexuality to see paedophilia.

Mr. Gerber must know he has wide powers to discipline priests, making him all the more culpable for not doing so when presented with clear evidence. The court in the Lawrence case ruled that there was a ‘‘clear public interest that, where such allegations of this sort are made, even after a significant lapse of time, the church be permitted to investigate those complaints, especially when made in relation to its clergy’’. He had been given official sanction to catch his rats.

There was another past case where Gerber came up smelling particularly badly –  that of priest Robert Ellmore, who was sentenced in 2002 in a Sydney court to serve at least eight years in prison for a series of sexual assaults on very young girls. The then 64 year old Anglican priest was first convicted of sexual assault on a minor when he was a 20-year-old, in Queensland. It’s now clear he continued to offend with impunity for decades, becoming, in the meantime, an ordained Anglican priest in NSW. Even after being convicted, unlicensed, and convicted again in the 90s, he was still able to pose as a priest, to win the trust of an unsuspecting family, and molest their eight-year-old daughter in 2001. Gerber was in his position as the Anglican Church’s moral protector during this time.

When Ellmore became a priest, he simply lied about his previous convictions. Despite comments elsewhere from Gerber that police checks were made even when they were not required by law, he told reporters, at the time of Ellmore’s conviction, a different story. “There were not the processes in place for us to do police checks in Queensland”, Gerber is reported as saying. Ellmore’s offending was so bad that the sentencing judge commented that he “only wished the law allowed him to impose a heavier punishment to adequately reflect the community’s abhorrence with his crimes.”

In an earlier posting, it was reported that Anglican priest, Pat Comben, said to a victim of the North Coast Children’s Home’s officials, that “at least you had a roof over your head”. Mr. Gerber continued the practice of saying very inappropriate things to victims. With regard to Ellmore, one said that Gerber said that “he had met the perpetrator’s wife and he couldn’t understand how Ellmore had done what he’d done because he’d met her, she was a pretty good sort. She wasn’t ugly or overweight, couldn’t understand how he did it. He said to me, ‘I’ll pray for you’. And I said, ‘Thank you’. He then said, ‘I’ll probably forget but I’ll get my wife to do it, she’s pretty good at that sort of thing’. Nice one, Mr. Gerber!

When not denying this claim, Mr. Gerber said “I would personally accept responsibility for being clumsy. One often says things that you regret saying in retrospect. But I don’t think that reflects the way the churches are dealing with things. I think that reflects a personal clumsiness on my part.” Clumsy, Mr. Gerber? (At the commission hearings, his term has become “failings”. Progress?)

There is hope that Mr. Gerber will change some of his views about reporting clerical child sexual abuse. He has changed his views significantly before, although some may think it has been for convenience rather than conviction. In 2004, he opposed any form of government enquiry into the church’s responses to child sexual abuse, at a time when many allegations had surfaced, and, as is now known, widespread cover-ups were in place.

Rejecting calls for an independent national enquiry, Mr. Gerber said that “I don’t think that’s going to achieve a lot. Who’s going to pay for it? Quite clearly the government has indicated that they’re not going to. If it is paid for by the Church, it would mean that there would be money going into lawyers’ pockets, rather than being used for better purposes, in particular helping victims.” When the Royal Commission was announced last year, he had changed his tune. He now says the Royal Commission is “timely”. He also says “I think for those who haven’t had a chance to tell their story, the Commission will certainly help.”

The Commission, however, is not helping priestly lawyer, Mr. Gerber, very much.

[Postscript: Royal Commission chairman, Peter McClellan, has made a call for funding of another 100 staff, to cope with the work-load. To date, the Abbott Federal Government has not responded to his call.]

Read more here:

TOMORROW: Money matters

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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